Thank you very much, sir. I appreciate it. I’m very grateful for this opportunity to participate in this discussion. I confess I hadn’t initially known that I had been given the very high honor of giving a keynote, and that I would be followed with such an impressive array of distinguished discussants, with old and new friends alike. So I feel honored but also a bit intimidated. I’ll try not to let you all down.
I know it’s quite early in Bangladesh now, so I feel I should make a few jokes to make sure everyone is awake. I can’t promise that, but I will do my best to provide some stimulation with some thoughts on the state of the US-Bangladesh relationship. My comments will occur in three parts. First, I’ll offer some thoughts on perceptions of Bangladesh in the US. Second, I’ll speak on the current state of US_Bangladesh relations. And third, I’ll discuss what to expect for the relationship in the Biden era.
First, perceptions. We must distinguish here between perceptions of Washington officials and Americans on the whole. Americans, especially away from the two coasts, urban areas, and college towns, are on the whole relatively parochial and don’t pay much attention to foreign affairs, much less individual countries like Bangladesh. Naturally it’s only the country that are in the news the most—the Chinas, the Irans, the North Koreas, that register on the radars of Americans, and typically for all the wrong reasons. There are more positive perceptions among those countries that enjoy soft power, and have a strong diaspora presence in the US—and here I would highlight India, and South Korea, and closer to home, Mexico. When it comes to Bangladesh, which doesn’t have much soft power and has a relatively small diaspora size, around half a million, perceptions are unsurprisingly quite reductive, and shaped by isolated major events that take place and put the country in the media’s eye. So when there’s a terrible natural disaster in Bangladesh and it makes the news, Americans think of Bangladesh as a place where you have these terrible natural disasters. During a period of Islamist extremist terror some years back, which culminated with the Holey bakery attack, Bangladesh became a place afflicted with a terrorism problem. And that’s basically it.
What about perceptions in Washington? Many of us in Washington that study official Washington’s policies toward Bangladesh tend to think that it’s a country that is sadly underplayed and too often falls under the strategic radar. I do think that Washington’s perception of Bangladesh has changed, in recent years, and it’s come a long way from Henry Kissinger’s infamous branding of the country as a basket case. For many years, Bangladesh has been viewed by Washington as a strategically important country because of its size, its large population, its location, its neighbors, and, increasingly, amid its economic growth story—an important commercial partner. I’d argue that its strategic standing in Washington’s eyes began to increase after the publication of Robert Kaplan’s scholarship on the Indian Ocean Region—Kaplan is an influential journalist and thinker in Washington whose ideas carry weight. It’s only natural that once you fully appreciate the strategic significance of the IOR, you would fully appreciate the strategic significance of the country that sits astride it, front and center.
That said, Bangladesh, I think, is essentially #3 on Washington’s list of most strategically significant South Asian states, after India and then Pakistan. And that’s not going to change, for reasons we can understand—India is seen on a bipartisan level in Washington as America’s best strategic bet in South Asia to counterbalance China, while Pakistan has its perfect storm of size, geography, population, extremism risks and nuclear weapons. But as I’ll discuss later, a sharpening US-China rivalry and the Indo Pacific strategy provide opportunities to bring Bangladesh into Washington’s strategic fold more sharply in the coming months and years.
So, let us now take stock of the current state of US-Bangladesh relations. This is a relationship that I would categorize as boringly stable. It is not a relationship in crisis by any means. But at the same time it’s not one of these warm, strategic headline-generating relationships. It’s somewhere in the middle. The two generally get along; there are certainly some tension points, but not enough to cause a lot of friction. And so the relationship quietly glides along, very quietly, and you don’t hear much about it—and given how volatile international politics can be these days, I think that’s a darn good thing.
So, US government messaging over the last year tends to emphasize the multifaceted nature of the relationship with Bangladesh, one that spans defense, diplomacy, and economics. But I would argue that economics and trade really comprise the sweet spot. There’s been a pretty strong track record of commercial cooperation in recent years, with Washington wishing to capitalize on Bangladesh’s exponential GDP growth since the 1980s. The US is the single largest market for Bangladeshi goods in the world, in recent years about $6 billion worth of products have been sent to the US. There is a trade deficit for the US, as the US has in recent years sent goods valued around $2 billion to Bangladesh on an annual basis. But then again, the US is the largest source of foreign direct investment in Bangladesh. In recent years, it has accounted for nearly a quarter of the stock of FDI in Bangladesh. That’s impressive. And the largest foreign investors is an American company, Chevron, which producing more than half of Bangladesh’s domestic natural gas. US companies more broadly are the largest foreign investors in Bangladesh.
The last major new initiative between the two countries was in October, when senior economic officials from both countries held a virtual meeting and then released a statement laying out, in great detail, how to advance the bilateral economic partnership. There is a lot in that statement, from pledges to cooperate on the blue economy, to collaborations on science and medicine and technology, as well as focus on integrating Bangladesh into the Asia EDGE program, which seeks to promote economic growth through energy security. This meeting also yielded a new open skies air transport agreement that intends to make progress toward having direct airflights between the US and Bangladesh.
Now certainly the elephant in the room in US-Bangladesh economic relations is the US having revoked GSP privileges for Bangladesh about 8 years ago, due to insufficient labor standards. But you know what, given how US-Bangladesh trade has continued to hum in the years since 2013, it doesn’t seem like GSP revocation has had a huge impact on Bangladesh’s trade relationship with the US, or on its economy on the whole. Again, there’s still a trade deficit weighted in Bangladesh’s favor.
Certainly, security is the other pillar of US-Bangladesh cooperation. There is a pretty strong military-to-military relationship, and this is seen in particular through maritime collaborations, including joint maritime exercises—the last one happened in November, I believe, despite the pandemic.
Finally, humanitarian assistance is another key component of the relationship—Bangladesh is the biggest source of US assistance after Afghanistan and Pakistan. Another big issue in the relationship over the last few years, which is surprising given the Trump administration’s lack of interest in human rights, is the Rohingya refugee issue—the US has provided a lot of assistance to Bangladesh for the Rohingya refugees, in fact more than any other country I believe.
Now, let us turn to what to expect for the US-Bangladesh relationship in the Biden era. These days, the best indication you get about a new government’s intentions is, of course, by looking at its tweets. Now, Bangladesh’s recent 50 year anniversary gave Biden administration officials a useful opportunity to showcase their sentiments about Bangladesh and the bilateral relationship. There was a lot of effusive praise. Secretary of State Blinken said, “As partners, we can address global challenges together, fight climate change, and promote a secure and prosperous future for the next 50 years.”
There were other messages of congratulation from Biden administration officials on March 26 that give a sense of where Washington may see things going. President Biden said he looked forward to working with Bangladesh to strengthen democracy and human rights. He lauded Dhaka for its efforts to help Rohingya refugees. Ervin Massinga, a senior State Department official, spoke of Bangladesh as an important security and economic player in the Indo Pacific, and said the US looks forward to working with Bangladesh on climate change.
Now, back in February, Blinken had a call with his Bangladeshi counterpart, AK Abdul Momen—the first known high-level exchange between the Biden White House and the Bangladeshi government. According to the US readout of the call, a set of issues were highlighted in the call, and I think these are the topics that will likely set the tone for the bilateral relationship over the next four years. The readout spoke of “deepening economic, counterterrorism, and defense cooperation, working together to address common challenges such as climate change, focusing on a durable solution to the Rohingya refugee crisis, and highlighting the importance of respect for labor and human rights.”
Let me highlight what we can expect in the relationship with a brief focus on four key lenses, which I think will be some of the main frames for the relationship from the US perspective. This is not comprehensive, by any means, I just want to highlight a few key lens.
First, let’s talk about climate change. We all know, we’ve heard this so often, that climate change will be a core pillar of the Biden administration’s foreign policy. The administration intends to work bilaterally , multilaterally, and globally to focus on climate change mitigation—and it plans to do that with friends and foes alike. Bangladesh is one of the most climate vulnerable countries in the world, for reasons this audience knows better than I. And the administration knows this. And the American public knows this. The administration has already signaled its intentions to focus on climate change in its relationship with Bangladesh. Senior officials have mentioned this in their public comments about Bangladesh. Sheikh Hasina was invited to be one of the 40 world leaders to participate in Biden’s virtual climate summit next month. There has already been cooperation between these two countries on climate change. So I think we can expect more of this. What form it takes is unclear, but at the least I expect Biden’s administration to want to include Bangladesh in major high-level, global exchanges on climate change mitigation.
Now climate change is a lens that suggests potential for cooperation with the US and Bangladesh. The second lens I’ll highlight is the opposite—it’s a frame that may introduce new tensions into the relationship. And that is democracy.
Democracy, like climate change, will be a major pillar of the Biden administration’s foreign policy. This marks only the third time in the last 45 years that a US administration puts democracy promotion on such a high pedestal in foreign policy. Bill Clinton did it after the end of the Cold War, in the early 1990s, and before that, during the height of the Cold War, Jimmy Carter did it in the late 1970s.
There is clearly relevance for Bangladesh, given the high level of democratic backsliding in the country over the last half decade plus, with major crackdowns against the political opposition and any forms of dissent, and with the country effectively having become a one-party state. These are the very developments that the Biden administration wants to call out.
Now, I would argue that, while the Biden administration will call out assaults on democracy more than the Trump administration did, it will do this more with rivals or countries not deemed to be important to US interests—so it’s no surprise that we’ve already seen the administration rail against China, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Burma, and so on for their egregious human rights violations. But you haven’t seen Biden’s White House call out India for its policies in Kashmir, or Israel for its policies against Palestinians. At least not yet. So I think Biden’s outrage will be selective, and friendly countries and partners will be spared this criticism.
Bangladesh falls somewhere in the middle—it’s not a critical ally, but it’s also not a rival. I think this means we can indeed expect the administration to express public criticism of democracy in Bangladesh, more intensely and frequently than it will vis a vis democracy in India, but less intensely and frequently than in Russia or China. And if there’s a specific manifestation of democratic backsliding that this administration is likely to call out, it’s the crackdown on Internet freedom in Bangladesh—Biden himself has expressed a lot of concern about the undemocratic ways in which digital technology is used. His administration has already been willing to go so far as criticize India, its close partner, for its Internet banks. So here, I think some of Dhaka’s online crackdowns, such as its use of online security laws as pretexts for cracking down on online dissent, could come under the microscope in Washington and highlighted in some critical comments.
Now the Biden administration’s willingness to criticize democracy problems in Bangladesh could become problematic for US-Bangladesh reasons. We saw what happened with the former US ambassador Marcia Bernicat was publicly critical of crackdowns on dissent in Bangladesh, back in 2018 when she was posted in Dhaka. At around that time when she was being critical, she left a dinner party in Dhaka one night and had her car assaulted by some motorcyclists who threw bricks at it. It’s unclear who did this, and it’s unclear if the attack was linked to her criticism. But there were other troubling signs too—firstly, no public figure in Bangladesh expressed public concern for Bernicat after her car was attached. And senior officials lambasted her for her criticism of Dhaka’s political crackdowns, basically telling her to butt out. Now if you had that kind of reaction to the criticism of a US ambassador, imagine if that criticism comes from the secretary of state, or a similarly senior person.
There’s another thing to keep in mind here in this conversation about democracy. US officials have long worried that Dhaka’s crackdown on the Islamist opposition, especially JI, could raise the risk of radicalization and lead to new recruits for violent extremist groups. And these types of risks are threatening to US interests, given that stability is Washington’s chief concern in Bangladesh and South Asia, and given that these Islamist violent extremist groups in Bangladesh are anti-American. So my point is that if these crackdowns and mufflings of dissent continue apace, the implications for US-Bangladesh relations are stark: It could prompt US public criticism, which could generate tensions. And it also risks leading to outcomes that are detrimental to US interests.
All this said, I’d like to focus on two other lens, which are interrelated, and which I think highlight—even with this discussion on how the democracy issue could cause tensions—how the US-Bangladesh relationship could grow in the Biden era.
One is China. There’s still a lot that’s not known about the Biden administration’s foreign policy, but one thing that’s crystal clear is that China will be the main foreign policy concern, and its approach to the world—and especially Asia—will be shaped by a deepening US-China rivalry that’s here to stay.
This means that the Biden administration’s view of Bangladesh will be viewed through the prism of US-China competition, and by extension competition between China and its rival India, which is America’s main strategic partner in South Asia. The US will want to deepen its relations with Bangladesh in order to counterbalance China’s footprint, which is largely driven by the Belt and Road Initiative. Washington knows that Bangladesh is a key theater for Sino-India competition. It was just the other night that Gowher Rizvi made the telling comment that it works with China on BRI, and that China has a role in India because of development assistance, but at the same time Bangladesh’s most important partner is India. This, to me, telegraphs the competition between India and China in Bangladesh. Now one can argue that Dhaka’s ties to Delhi are warmer and more multifaceted than they are with Beijing, but clearly there’s a competition playing out here. And the Biden administration has an opportunity to try to shift the balance away from China and more toward India by stepping up its own engagements with Bangladesh through more maritime cooperation, more investment, more efforts to partner with Bangladesh on trans-regional connectivity projects, such as those within the BIMSTEC rubric.
The fourth and final lens that I’ll discuss is that of the US Indo Pacific policy. This is essentially the latest iteration of the US Asia pivot or rebalance policy, created by the Trump administration several years back. It is meant to strengthen US partnerships with like-minded countries in Asia to pursue a free and open and rules-based Indo Pacific. And its always unstated goal is to push back against China’s security and economic actions in the region, which the US believes to be aggressive and predatory, respectably. While nothing has been said formally, it appears that the Biden administration will retain this Indo Pacific policy, though for political reasons it may gave it a new name.
One of the key questions for the Biden administration is how does Bangladesh fit into the Indo Pacific policy. Seen from a geographic context, Bangladesh is on the margins. For Washington, Indo Pacific has typically been conceptualized as a largely East Asia and Southeast Asia based phenomenon—not a South Asia-based phenomenon. And the reason for that is simple: From the prism of US-China completion, the US tends to accord more strategic significance to those eastern reaches of Asia than South Asia because China’s actions in Eastern Asia are more threatening to US interests than those in South Asia. And especially in terms of Asian waters. China’s provocations in the South China Sea threaten US treaty allies. It is present in the western Indian Ocean region, closer to Bangladesh, but its presence there doesn’t pose as much of a threat to US interests.
This poses a bit of a problem for US-India security cooperation, given that New Delhi’s interests dictate the opposite: China’s threat on its border, and off Indian waters, are more of a threat to India than are its activities in the faraway South China Sea.
Bangladesh is sort of in the same boat. If the administration tries to bring Dhaka into the Indo Pacific policy, it will have to be sufficiently convinced that developments involving China in South Asia are undercutting US interests. And on this front, I do think a shift is afoot. Washington has never denied the strategic importance of the wider IOR—as I said, the work of Robert Kaplan and others have made clear its broader strategic significance. The Obama administration, during its full term, was issuing documents describing the Indian Ocean as the second most strategic ocean, after the Pacific. But it appears to me that this administration will rapidly understand the increasing strategic significance of the western parts of Asia, seen against the backdrop of China’s increasing role there. It’s sends a lot of its sea-based trade through the IOR. It has a military base in Djibouti. Its deadly clash with India in Ladakh last year really woke up Washington to the threat posed by China in the IOR. There has been reportage lately indicating Biden’s increasing concerns about China’s development of the Gwadar port in Bangladesh.
So I do think the administration will want Bangladesh to be a part of the Indo Pacific policy. Already, during the Trump years, Pentagon documents were listing Bangladesh as a key country in this regard and calling for more cooperation in maritime affairs, counterterrorism, counter narcotics, and connectivity.
The question is what does this entail in terms of operational cooperation between the US and Bangladesh under the Indo Pacific rubric? Well, several options—there are the stepped up maritime exercises and things like that, which I discussed earlier. But there are also options for deploying the tools of the Indo Pacific policy to Bangladesh. The DFC, the Development Finance Corporation, is a new US government agency intended to provide support for infrastructure projects. The Blue Dot Network is a multilateral effort involving the Quad state minus India, though India has been invited to join, which is meant to create high-quality standards for infrastructure investments in the Indo Pacific. These two tools, potentially, can be deployed to Bangladesh for investment opportunities.
I’ll bring this talk to a close now. There is scope for the US Bangladesh relationship to grow in the Biden years, especially through opportunities for stepped up cooperation on climate change and through Bangladesh’s inclusion in the US Indo Pacific policy. That said, the administration’s concerns about democracy in Bangladesh could inject some new tensions into the relationship. But no matter how things shake out, the relationship, driven in particular by economic cooperation, should continue to be cordial and stable on the whole. Thank you!
Keynote lecture delivered at the Cosmos Dialogue, March 30, 2021. Michael Kugelman is deputy director of the Asia Program and senior associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center.